Tennis Bizarre: Part 2-Tick Tock and Tank!


In this edition of tennis bizarre, we wind the clocks back to 14th century France, the time when tennis scoring system seemingly emerged. Popular belief has it that the 0-15-30-40 scoring pattern in tennis was derived from the quarterly movements of the hands of clocks used courtside. And in order to ensure that a one-point difference doesn’t turn out to be the telling factor, the concept of deuce was introduced. However, it doesn’t take much ingenuity to realize that the person winning the higher share of the points doesn’t necessarily come up trumps in our game. In fact, the only point the conqueror must necessarily conquer is the last point of the match.

Pretty often analysts refer to tennis as the sport closest to reality. The game has indeed evolved from wooden to polyester strung racquets, from the forecourt to the baseline, from faster to slower courts, however the part that remains altered is that when you are out there slugging it out for 5 sets, facing the music, you got no one to complain to, no one to blame and no one to seek help from. The crowd pressure, the ranking hierarchy, your own expectations and add to that a 3 feet obstacle mid-court and a desperate opponent on its other side, the picture you get is not all that divorced from what most mortals call ‘reality’. In the midst of all these philodophical and technical considerations however, the tennis scoring system has not ideally come under much scrutiny. So is the system a blessing in disguise or a fly in the ointment for the sport so often referred to as the best form of reality TV? Let us try to find some answers.

22-24 June, Wimbledon 2010, Court 18, first round. You must have guessed it right! The famous John Isner-Nicolas Mahut match, that went in favour of the big serving American, 6-4 3-6 6-7 7-6 70-68 and lasted a whooping 11 hours and 5 minutes. This Herculean bout created umpteen tennis records over three days of compelling action. As the scoreline goes, it seems there is barely anything to choose between the two contenders. However a deeper peak into the statistics column reveals a more cogent picture, as Nicolas Mahut managed to secure 502 of the 980 points in the duel compared to Isner’s 478. Now a difference of 24 points out of 980 may not stir the stem cells of a math-aholic but a tennis freak would know that on your best day, 24 points can win you an entire set!

One only needs to go as far as this year’s Australian Open to spot the latest precedent of such a kink. The best match of the tournament undoubtedly was the one between Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka. The gruelling five setter was finally won by the Swiss number 2, the eventual champion. Novak Djokovic headed into the match as the heavy favourite. He had outlasted Stan on their last 14 meetings. This time however the Tennis Gods had a different script up their sleeves and the Serb fell victim to the Swiss’ controlled aggression 7-9 in the fifth. Once again, despite the last laugh going against Novak, he was the one to have bagged the higher share of points, about 52% of them.

Such oddities in tennis are often referred to as examples of the Simpson’s paradox.

Simpson’s Paradox is a statistical quirk where seemingly correlated variables are reversed when combined. In tennis, it is seen in those matches in which players win more individual points than their opponents (or more games than their opponents) but end up losing the match. You can read more about it here. Matches featuring the big servers, the likes of John Isner and Ivo Karlovic, who have a lesser baseline game are likely candidates. Most of these big servers practise what in tennis terms is called “tanking”. To elaborate, it means that these players don’t exert much energy during their opponent’s service games and swing freely without getting into too many rallies, thereby preserving or ‘tanking’ energy for their own service games. If they manage a break, it serves as a bonus or else they back themselves and their serves to see them through a tiebreak situation. Thanks to the scoring system, players can mathematically afford such a style of play. For all you know the better all court players may fall prey on their unlucky days to such a gameplan. This brings us to a natural question. Who is the player who has suffered the unpleasantries of this paradox to the highest degree? The answer is none other than arguably the greatest player of all times, Roger Federer.

1 February, 2009, “it’s killing me”. Three words that certainly wrenched the hearts of an entire fandom on the eve of the Australian Open final 2009, as Nadal beat Federer in 5 sets, a defeat that moved the great Swiss to tears during the presentation. Most critics say that Federer was the better player in that match, atleast for the first 4 sets. In fact, even after a final set letdown from Federer (he lost it 6-2), he had a total of 174 points compared to Rafa’s 173. One can only imagine how biased that points tally would look like if you took the fifth set out of the equation.

Wimbledon undoubtedly is the established citadel of Roger Federer. The last thing you would expect is the Swiss maestro losing out on grass after leading two sets to the good. Jo Wilfried Tsonga pulled off the unthinkable in Wimbledon 2011 as he beat Federer 3-6 6-7 6-4 6-4 6-4. And guess what, once again it was Federer who had the better grades on the points asking, 146 to Tsonga’s 136. In fact, on over two dozen occasions the Swiss has won more points than his opponent and yet emerged the second best  player. Barely half a dozen times has he managed to overwhelm this statistical anomaly. The only rare significant encounter in which he has managed to do so would be the US Open 2004 Quarter Finals in which Federer topped Agassi despite trailing 49% to 51% on the points tally. Federer of course went on to win the tournament that year and in the four subsequent years to come.

The very fact that such an incongruity exists is due to the best of N format in tennis (race to 6 games, race to 7 points in a tiebreak, etc.). However this brings us to the question we started with. Does this scoring mechanism make tennis lesser? Or does it contribute to making the game bigger and better? The discussion about the Simpson’s paradox, on deeper thought, should lead you to option 2. If tennis would have been a sport in which the player with more points was declared the winner outright, that would essentially take away the larger part of the reality quotient in the game. It is not the better player who wins a tennis match but it is the one who plays the big points better. This format essentially brings tennis closer to verisimilitude than perhaps any other game has ventured. And in all likelihood, it is this scoring scheme that contributes to tennis being rated as the ‘best form of reality TV’.

You can also go through the first of the Tennis Bizarre series here.

Photo by Abdou.W